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We’ll get Through This Together

We really appreciate all the calls etc. about people who have not been following the beach ban order. We’re doing the best we can to stay on top of all of this. It’s been tough, especially on the West End. We have 4-6 vehicles a day on the beaches dedicated to just keeping them clear of people. The police have also done quite a bit, as are code enforcement officers. So far Beach Patrol/Park Board Police alone has given over 4,500 verbal warnings and removed those people from the beach. This amount of contact with people puts my staff and other emergency responders at risk, so I ask that you do your part and don’t be one of the people we have to move or ticket.

Most people have been really good about it and don’t need to be told more than once. To be clear NO ONE is allowed on the beach right now aside from people who have to work on the beach like police, lifeguards, and maintenance crews. The fine for breaking this mayoral order can be as much as $500 and it looks like enough people have been non-compliant to warrant more forceful measures. That said, of the thousands moved most seem to understand why its so important that we reduce congregation on the beaches and prevent large groups from coming here. They just seem to think it applies to “those people”.

At the time of writing this, City Council was about to meet to look at a plan to partially open the beaches in May. If they approve it, looks like there will be, for starters, some early morning weekday hours that we can all get out there and walk, run, fish, surf, bike, and walk our dogs. All the things that make living in a beach town so wonderful. As long as people follow the hours, maintain social distancing, and don’t set up chairs or lay on one place, we should be able to gradually open up more hours and days. Much will depend on Houston, so they’reworking to open during days and times that are less likely for the beaches to get inundated with people while we wait for the Houston area to get a little more past the crisis point. Moving too fast could mean we have to get more restrictive again, and none of us wants that.

Many of us have been very impressed with our leaders here on the island and how thoughtful the public and private discussions have been. I’m proud to be working with all the groups and people involved in management of the beaches and of the city response to the pandemic. That also includes all the thoughtful citizens who are willing to do things for the greater good. And,of course, my staff, who consistently surprise me with their patience and determination to keep people safe even if it puts my crew at risk.

We’ll get through this together. Please keep yourself healthy and watch out for your neighbors.

Recover and Rebuild

Corona’s effects on our beach are both eerily familiar and completely foreign all at the same time. But Galveston, like the rest of the world’s beaches, has had a long history of disruptions.

Reading accounts from the 1800’s there are times when the bay and parts of the beach water froze completely over. You could ride a horse drawn cart to the mainland over the frozen surface of the bay according to one account. Other times in the 17th century, the lifeguard service fell to a minimum or was completely disbanded for a time, at least until there was a traumatic event with multiple deaths. This was a pattern that continued all the way until the 1980’s where, after the event, the community invariably renewed their interest and commitment in maintaining a lifeguard service.

In the 20th century we saw Waikiki Beach ruined and rebuilt because of erosion caused by construction projects. Part of Miami Beach, Jersey coast, and Southern California were also lost to a pattern of erosion caused by building projects, dams, and natural disasters.

Here in Galveston, we are no strangers to this pattern in the past few centuries. In the later 1800s there were massive wooden beach pavilions that were lost in two storms in the later part of the century, and again in the Great Storm of 1900. The Great Depression had a huge effect on beach attendance, both because people didn’t have resources for recreation, but also because the beach is free recreation. We see this pattern even today when the economy dips or gas prices increase, and we get more day trippers to the island.

Even in the relatively short time I’ve been with the Beach Patrol we’ve been knocked down by Hurricane Alicia, where I sat helplessly with another guard watching pieces of the Flagship Hotel being ripped off by high winds and falling into the water. The next year the guards spent the second half of the summer keeping people out of the water and capturing birds for cleaning because of a massive oil spill. We’ve seen our resources swell because of new beaches created in the 90’s and dwindle again when the convention center was built. And of course, we worked up to and through Hurricane Ike, only to see budget reductions right afterwards when the Great Recession hit.

Corona had brought, and will bring, another big challenge to Galveston’s lifeguard service. We’ve cut all seasonal staff and are not working any tower lifeguards. Our amazing, dedicated year-round staff is still working and tasked with the unenviable job of keeping the beaches clear of people. But the real challenge lays ahead. We are almost completely funded by hotel tax dollars and the hotels have taken a serious financial hit. No one really knows at this point when things will get back to the point when business picks up, or how the larger economic picture will affect the hotels and tourism industry.

Rough times are no doubt ahead, but history shows us that we will recover and rebuild.

Beach Closures

It’s amazing how quickly our lives change. Last week we were out enjoying some really nice beach moments as the Corona cloud started to close in. Suddenly the Mayor and City Manager made the difficult decision last Sunday to close the beaches. If you drove down the seawall last Sunday afternoon right before we stared clearing the crowds, you’d have seen that the amount of people who came down to enjoy the beach and the beautiful weather left no choice. Tens of thousands of people were out, and it looked like one of those booming Spring afternoons. As nice as it was to see everyone out having fun, there’s no way we an tamp down the spread of Corona unless we reduce the people moving on and off and around the island. It was a good call.  

Our guards were fairly busy with the crowds and had moved quite a few swimmers from dangerous areas. We’d even made two rescues. They were already on point, but when the call came and I told them to clear the beaches, I was really impressed how they rose to the occasion. Both the tower guards and the Supervisors in the trucks went into action, as did quite a few Patrol Officers of the Galveston Police Department. Within two hours, all 32 miles of beach, including beach park parking lots were clear of people and cars. As I made my way home around sunset, I saw city Park Department crews out erecting barricades, and by the time noon Monday rolled around, every beach access point on the west end was blocked from vehicular traffic, every access point on the seawall was blocked, and the Stewart and East Beach Parks were gated and barricaded. Couldn’t be prouder of my crew and more impressed by the police, park, and public works departments for how quickly and professionally they made all that happen. 

All that was on the heels of a huge grass fire at the East End Lagoon Saturday. The wind was blasting from the north, which caused the fire to spread really quickly. Galveston Fire Department responded quickly and called for help from a number of other departments, including Galveston Marine Response partner Jamaica Beach. It was a heroic battle that lasted throughout the night. When the sun rose, it was still smoldering and there were little spot fires popping up, but it was mostly out. The fire made it to the berm behind the East Beach pavilion, over to Apffel Road. But fortunately was stopped just short of jumping the road and devouring Beach Town.  

Now the dust has cleared from a crazy weekend. Tower Guards aren’t working and our full-time supervisors, along with the Galveston Police Department, have the unenviable job of telling locals they can’t use their beach during sometimes beautiful Spring weather. But, as always, they’ve jumped into the task wholeheartedly because they know how vitally important it is that we all reduce contact so we can save a lot of lives.  

Spring Break!

Tomorrow, Saturday March 7 it all starts. We have lifeguard tryouts at 7am and will begin training the ones who pass immediately afterwards. Returning guards will do their swim test, drug screen, and rehire paperwork and many will head to the towers to start their first day of guarding of the season. And, of course, Spring Break really kicks off this weekend.

This marks the turning of the season for many of us who work and live on the beach. Its really nice when everyone comes back and starts enjoying themselves on the beach. Its great that we’ve completed all of our winter tasks and my staff can get back to the part of the job they love, which is protecting people who come to the beach from accidents. Its great to see the parks open, smell grilled meat, help lost children find their parents, help people who are injured, serve as island tourist ambassadors, and train in or enjoy the ocean without being encased in a big rubber suit. But its hard to not feel nostalgic about empty winter beaches shared with a few die-hard people who love the beach as much as we do.

Having several hundred thousand people about to hit the water and sand over the next couple of weeks means that there are many opportunities for them to get in trouble. This is a great time for reminders of how to avoid bad things happening.

Learn to Swim- it’s the only sport that will save your life!

Swim Near a Lifeguard- You’ll have an extra layer of safety and there is a trained professional near if you get in trouble.

Stay Away from Rocks- Any structure causes strong, dangerous rip currents.

Swim with a Buddy- There will be someone to raise the alarm if you get into trouble.

Check with the Lifeguards- They’re there for you! And they can give you information about local hazards.

Use Sunscreen and Drink Water- Avoid dehydration and overexposure which increase your risk of something bad happening.

Obey Posted Signs and Flags- Beach Patrol maintains over 300 safety signs along all 33 miles of beach. Many dangers are marked, and the signs let you know where the dangers are.

Learn Rip Current Safety- Rip currents are responsible for 80% of rescues, and likely the same for fatal and non-fatal drownings. If caught in a rip, relax and float and you’ll probably end up on shore without doing anything. Yell for help if possible and if you’re a good swimmer try swimming parallel to shore towards breaking waves, then back in.

Enter Water Feet First- The open water can hide dangers beneath the surface that you can’t see and that can cause a spinal injury if you’re careless

Wear a Life Jacket- especially if you’re a non-swimmer or child when in or around the water.

Don’t Swim at the Ends of the Island- There are dangerous tidal currents at the ship channel and San Luis Pass.

And most importantly, have fun!

 

 

Photo by: Billy Hill

Flag Conditions

We are only a week away from lifeguard tryouts and we’re hoping for a big turnout on Saturday the 7th of march. Info is on our website. We’re also right on beach season, so were pushing out public safety information to remind people to be safe. One area that’s important is our Flag Warning System.

The Flag Warning System is used to advise beach patrons of the current water conditions and any applicable environmental warnings. The flag colors described below used to help beachgoers understand the current conditions in the always dynamic environment of open water.

On Galveston Island, informational signs and warning flags are posted each day year-round along Seawall Blvd. at flag warning stations. Also, each guarded Lifeguard tower flies the appropriate flags for the day. They also are displayed at beach park entrances.

We post flag color, warnings, and other important safety info on our Homepage and on multiple social media platforms every day. You can also sign up on our website to receive the notifications via email and/or text message daily.

Here are the different flags we use and some inside background info on them:

Green: Conditions are calm. Swim with care. Remember this doesn’t mean you’re safe. The ocean isn’t a pool or pond so you should always be extra careful even on flat days.

Yellow: Indicates that caution should be used when entering the water. This flag is flown for normal ocean conditions to remind swimmers to stay alert. Its important to stay close to shore on yellow days.

Red: Flown when conditions are rough, such as presence of strong wind, strong current or large surf. Adult swimmers should stay in water no more than waist deep and non-swimmers and children should be kept along the surf line. When there is a red flag flying you should assume the presence of very strong rip currents near any type of structure like groins or jetties.

Purple: Indicates a potential problem with jellyfish, Portuguese man-o-war, stingrays or other marine life that could be a hazard for swimmers. Purple flags will be used in combination with other flags. Every guard trains before every shift so we use ourselves as the Guinea Pigs. If we get several stings while swimming the flags go up. Sometimes a wave of critters comes up midday so we put the purple flags up when we reach a minimum threshold of the ratio of stings to swimmers.

Orange: Indicates there is an environmental warning for air and/or water quality. Ask the Lifeguard for more details. Orange pennant flags will be used in combination with other flags. We have a partnership with UTMB for air quality warnings and one with the Health Districts Texas Beach Watch Program for water quality warnings. Water quality warnings can be specific to certain areas so these flags, when flown, may be just in some areas. We don’t determine when either of these warnings are issued. But we help spread the word by our flag system, or website, or via social media.

Full Time Staff Competition

High stepping into the frigid water we all chose different strategies. Some circled wide, choosing to run a little farther up the beach to account for a moderate lateral current. Others went straight in. Muffled sounds of discomfort were heard over the breaking surf as they hit the first trough and started a series of “dolphin dives”, using their feet to push off the bottom repeatedly. A wet suit is only warm after the cold water gets in and your body warms it up, so the first 5 minutes can be awful.

Once we got to chest deep everyone started swimming. As the old man in the group, I need more warmup time, so entered the water last. Hoping that experience and training would help me in lieu of raw physical ability, I ignored the panicky feeling that first immersion always brings, and focused on a long regular swim stroke and good sighting of the buoys so as not to lose too much time by not swimming in straight line.

As we rounded the first buoy and set our sights in the second, things got complicated because there was just enough fog to prevent seeing it at first. So, we had to use reference points to get a general sense of direction and hoped for the best. Andy Moffett shot ahead and maintained the whole race, and we all used him as a reference point. Or guinea pig.

Coming off the first lap we were warmed up and the water conditions were no longer an issue. I came out after Andy and looked back. Micah Fowler was close, then Jeff Mullin and Joey Walker neck and neck. A little behind them was Dain Buck, then Kevin Knight, Micah Fowler, and Michael Lucero. From there another run, a lap using rescue boards, run, swim, another rescue board lap, and a double run.

The real race was between Jeff and Joey, who went back and forth the entire time. Both are big cross fit athletes, so it was an aerobic battle. Dain took a little while getting going, but he’s a real experienced water guy whose been with us for years. Once he found his rhythm, he used wave and current knowledge to blast by. He almost caught me at the end by catching a great wave all the way on the outside.

We use competition quite a bit to maintain the high level of fitness required of ocean guards and have periodic competitions to motivate the crew. This was a team event between full time staff members. All winter we’ve done once a week training of this exact course to maintain fitness, keep everyone continually adapted to cold, and make sure everyone is intimately familiar to which wetsuit and equipment to use for a variety of conditions. This was the final test between teams and who gets bragging rights. But from here we’ll move on to requalification times for all the staff in the pool, a night swim, daily workouts, and Sunday races.

Warmer Conditions

Comparing this winter to last, we’ve had much warmer conditions so far. It looks like we’re already to our early Spring pattern of repeated fronts coming through and we haven’t even had anything close to a freeze yet. The beach water barely dipped into the upper 50’s once and has mostly sat in the lower 60’s for a while. On sunny days we’ve actually had a good number of people on the beaches and there have even been a few brave/foolhardy/northern/European people getting in the water.

All this put together has meant that our daily patrol vehicle that covers all 33 miles of beachfront this time of year has had steady work moving people from rocks and out of dangerous areas, keeping vehicles out of prohibited areas, and serving as tourist ambassadors to the surprising amount of tourists that have been on the beach. The warmer conditions have also meant more people on the water in boats and we, along with our partners in the Galveston Marine Response, have responded to quite a few boating emergencies.

One thing that is a cool byproduct of these frontal systems is that we’ve had some pretty epic surf days right after the front passes. The energy from the pre-front on shore winds still remains for a bit but the offshore winds clean the waves up, making them long and clean and great for surfing. The Pleasure Pier and the 91st street fishing pier were the spots that caught the swell the best, but I had a couple of early morning and late afternoon sessions out on the west end that were pretty memorable. Being winter, these days were easy on my staff, since you needed a wetsuit to be in the water and most surfers that own wetsuits are fairly experienced and rarely need any help from us. In fact, surfers make scores of rescues each year since they thrive in the areas near rip currents and piers where regular swimmers typically have problems. The great thing for my staff, who all surf, is that both the really good recent days happened on the weekends. Aside from our patrol, the staff is mostly doing maintenance on towers during the normal work week, so a bunch of them got to take a day trip to Matagorda where it breaks harder. They all have good shots of themselves deep in the tube to rub in to those who didn’t make it.

I was renewing my police chief certification all week in Huntsville. Sitting for 9 hours straight several days in a row is not my favorite, but Texas has great training for this type of thing. I spent all week on topics that will help us all like personality testing as a tool for public safety, building a wellness program for your agency, creating a positive and contemporary culture in an organization, public communication use and agency public relations, legislative updates, use of force best practices, community and law enforcement mental health, and leadership lessons. All good things to bring home.

Join the Family!

Even though it’s still winter we’ve got just over a month before Spring Break is here. The beach parks kick off on March 8th, but the beaches will be getting busy before that. Our full-time staff, between patrolling, answering emergency calls, and putting the finishing touches on our lifeguard towers, are already starting to do a thousand little things to be ready when the beach pops. We’re prepping for our various programs that will get going in the spring including lifeguarding, Wave Watcher, supervisor and dispatcher academies, and Survivor Support Network.

As always we are hoping for a big turnout to the four lifeguard academies we’ll have this year. It’s been difficult filling the positions we have and covering the beachfront the past three years, even though it’s an amazing job that pays really well. Our two main academies are over Spring Break and the two weeks leading up to Memorial Weekend. Please help us by spreading the word and encouraging anyone you know that is interested to start swimming to prepare, and then to try out to beach a beach guard. The main obstacle to getting a job with us is making that minimum swim time. Our website has tons of info on it and even has sample swim workouts and training tips.

Another area that we’d love to have a big turnout for is our Wave Watcher Program. Wave Watchers go through a 20-hour free course that includes victim detection and beach safety information, CPR and Tourist Ambassador Certification, and information about working with local first responder organizations. After the training our Wave Watchers keep a trained eye out on the beach as they go through their normal life activities. Some are motivated to patrol set schedules and areas or help with lost children at the beach parks. Others just let us know if they see anything developing while they’re driving, walking, fishing, biking etc. This has become an integral part of our program as they are often out in areas or during times of the day that we’re not present. Several Wave Watchers are also members of the Jesse Tree Survivor Support Network (SSN) and are trained to come to the aid of families in crisis when their loved ones are missing in the water. The Wave Watcher Academy will take place in April and we’re taking applicants now.

The other big program we have is our Junior Lifeguard Day Camp for kids 10-15 years of age which starts in early June. This program teaches lifeguard and leadership skills while we workout and do all kinds of fun activities and field trips. It’s very economical and we have scholarships available. Most importantly for us, these JGs are the lifeguards and leaders of tomorrow.

Whoever you are and whatever you do there is a way for you or someone you know to join our family. Get on our website or give us a call to find out more information.

We need you and Galveston needs you!

Ship Channel Accident

This week we spend quite a bit of time on the water in the ship channel area helping the Coast Guard look for two people that were missing after a tragic boating. These types of searches often start out simply but end up going into all types of different worlds. When they happen, I’m always grateful for the privilege of having friends and colleagues in various parts of the broader safety net. One of the really nice things about being in a job like this for a long time is you get to develop relationships with some pretty evolved people.

Late in the afternoon I got a call from Louis Trouchesset with the Marine Division of the Galveston Sheriff Office, who is a key member of the Galveston Marine Response Team. He told me about the accident and said that they were not able to launch a boat because of the dense fog. With an hour of daylight left, my staff decided they could launch a jet ski and hug the rocks on the east side of the south jetty to see if they could locate one of the four people that were missing. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anything. Coast Guard found two and then searched throughout the night with their larger boat, using radar and GPS to navigate. The Galveston Police Department was able to get out there as well for much of the night. The next morning, we provided a lifeguard to Louis in the county boat and searched throughout the day alongside them using jet skis.

Louis will hate that I write this about him because he’s not the kind of guy that ever seeks out attention. But he is one of the more impressive people I’ve had the privilege of working with. He is incredibly knowledgeable about marine law enforcement and basically everything else to do with boats or ocean. In addition, he’s really a smart guy and sees both the larger picture and things other people miss, especially around the water. Exposure to him and the way he works is invaluable training for my staff.

Louis and I have worked with another extraordinary person in the Coast Guard on a number of different things. Caren Damon is an example of the quality that rises to the top in a system like that. She’s amazing with families in crisis among lots of other things. When she asked for a space to brief and provide counseling to the victims’ families, I immediate called David Mitchel with the Jesse Tree.

David is a highly creative social services guru who knows everything and everyone. He has attracted a group of volunteers for our Survivor Support Network program who are compassionate, energetic, dedicated and fun, just like him. They arranged for a room at Moody Methodist within a couple of hours.

All these friends and organizations going to such lengths for others, along with my unbelievable staff who enthusiastically spent hours in the cold and wet, are a source of constant inspiration.

Fisherman Rescue

Sometimes rescues are not as dramatic as they are interesting.

A couple of days before Christmas we received a direct call from a local resident who was worried about his son right as the sun was setting. He called our main number which automatically rolls over to our “on call” phone when no one is in the office. His son, who was in his late teens, had been out duck hunting on the north side of the San Luis Pass since early in the day. He waded out to an island that was about a quarter mile from shore, but the tide had filled in and the gut he’d walked across was now overhead with a strong current running through it.

Sergeant Austin Kirwin and Supervisor Josh Bailey headed out to The Pass. They were finally able to locate the vehicle the victim had driven in after it was all the way dark. They were able to communicate with him by phone and he used a combination of a flashlight and firing his shotgun to help them find him.

After careful consideration they decided to have Josh go for the guy and Austin to stay on shore in case they needed to call for more help. Josh donned his wetsuit and a headlight, grabbed a waterproof radio, and headed out using a combination of wading and paddling a rescue board.

When Josh got to the island, he found the fisherman in good spirits. He was painted up in camouflage paint and wore a camo outfit with waders. He had a backpack loaded with supplies, a shotgun, and a string of duck decoys. He said he was thinking about just eating some food he had brought and sleeping until the next low tide, but was afraid that the tide would cover the island when it filled all the way in. He was worried that he couldn’t make it across the gut, where the tidal flow had carved out an area that was well overhead. As Josh paddled him in with all the little decoys following them like a mama duck, he was joking around but was happy to be rescued by a “rescue swimmer”.

We’ve rescued many people, and even a cow, out there when the conditions and the sandbars change rapidly. Something that seems so simple, like wading out to a shallow sandbar, can turn deadly quickly.

I don’t know the guy that was rescued. But I know some things about him just by reading the rescue report. For such a young guy he’s very smart and/or experienced. He knew his waders could fill and drown him, as has happened to countless people fishing over the years. He was also really smart to be so prepared with a flashlight, food, and a charged cell phone.

Taking some simple precautions, thinking out a course of action carefully when the situation changed, and not being too proud to call for help when needed was the difference between a potential tragedy and an interesting story.